Warm Southern Breeze

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“The Notorious RBG” – A Very Short Story

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Friday, September 25, 2020

The Supreme Court, and the legal profession in general, are steeped in tradition – perhaps even more so than the United States Senate.

If you’ve ever heard any of the oral arguments before the nation’s highest court, you’ve likely heard the opening remark, “Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court.”

However, if you’ve never heard an oral argument, you’re fortunate to be living in this age, because oral arguments in the nation’s highest court are recorded and archived for posterity sake. Audio recordings of the arguments may be found on the court’s website (a), along with supporting audio of preceding arguments from lower courts (b), if available.
(a) https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_audio/2019
(b) https://www.supremecourt.gov/media/media.aspx

So it may come as some surprise that phrase “may it please the court” is relatively new.

While opening arguments have long typically begun with “Mr. Chief Justice” as a formality of greeting and acknowledgment before initiating oral argument, the addition of the word “and” before “may it please the court” or any other opening has similarly long been optional, though it is frequently used.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg official portrait 2016 (1933-2020)

The phrase “may it please the court” had its beginnings on June 23, 1969 when then-President Richard Nixon addressed the court delivering a brief, but gracious eulogy on Chief Justice Earl Warren’s final day before retirement before Warren Burger was to be sworn in as his successor, by saying, “Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.”

When Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court’s first female justice, was installed, the tradition of stating the individual justice’s names as “mister Justice (last name)” in the salutation was ceased in favor of the simpler title “Justice (surname).”

Some attorneys sought Associate Justice David Suter’s advice on how to proceed with the salutation, and followed his recommendation with “Justice O’Connor, and may it please the Court.”

Former Associate Justice David Suter also recalled a story in the court’s history when, in her last term before retirement in 2005, Justice O’Connor presided over the court, because Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was ill and Justice John Paul Stevens absent. It was a non-argument day when decisions were announced, and motions presented, and remains the only time a woman has presided.

How the honorific title “mister” will be handled with the first female Chief Justice remains to be seen. Could it be “madam”? Surely it won’t be “missus” or “miz.” Though it could be the more straight-forward “Chief Justice.”

Attorney Bryan A. Garner, Editor in Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, and author of other books about the law, asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg her thoughts on the matter, and she said, “Bryan, you have identified two precedents for dropping Mr. before Justice: ‘Justice O’Connor, and may it please the Court,’ and ‘Chief Justice ____, and may it please the Court’ should attract no dissents.”

Stick around to see what happens.

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